Indie Band Guster Celebrates Its Eras with a New Album and Tour

Group that formed at Tufts more than 30 years ago says the best is yet to come

It’s a one-in-a-million dream come true: Three college friends start a band, make it big, and…keep going.

Thirty-three years, nine studio albums, and hundreds of shows have passed since the founding members of alternative rock group Guster first met at the Tufts Wilderness Orientation in 1991. But the Class of 1995’s Adam Gardner, Ryan Miller, and Brian Rosenworcel are far from fading into retirement.

In fact, Relix magazine praised Guster’s new album, Ooh La La, out May 17, for “stack[ing] up to the best in their catalog.” The group’s set to spend the summer celebrating the 25th anniversary of its much-beloved Lost and Gone Forever at shows and festivals around the country. And the band’s on deck to take the Red Rocks stage with the Colorado Symphony this August.

“Who gets to live their lives like they were in college with the people they were doing it with in college, at 50 years old, with kids and wives and homes?” Gardner asks. That success is thanks—in no small part—to the band members’ passion for the music, steadfast commitment to the work and each other, and a long history of getting silly and vulnerable with their mighty followers.

A black-and-white photo of the three founding members of Guster in the back of a van

Guster gigged several nights a week while its members were students and started touring full-time after graduation. An early publicity photo shows (left to right) Ryan Miller, Brian Rosenworcel, and Adam Gardner. Photo: Chris Buck

There We Stand, About to Fly

Among the more than 1,000 newly minted Tufts grads in caps and gowns on May 20, 1995, were three bandmates who’d already gassed up their tour van, itching to leave College Avenue in the dust.

Formerly Gus (but forced to add the “ter” after an artist of the same name beat them to a record deal), Guster had been steadily working since a first-year debut at the Midnight Café in Lewis Hall. “We literally met and the first conversations we had were about playing music together,” Miller says. “The band was the friendship.”

With Gardner and Miller on vocals and acoustic guitar, Rosenworcel on percussion (namely bongos), and their trademark whimsy underpinning every show, Guster cut its teeth performing original material along the East Coast college circuit. The band gigged four and five nights a week, opened for the Barenaked Ladies, and even financed its first studio album, Parachute (1994), all before the members graduated.

Soon enough, they were touring full-time, enduring as only 22-year-olds vibing on songwriting, friendship, and Old Country Buffet can.

“The van days were really fun,” Gardner remembers. “People tucked in their sleeping bags in the back, just throwing their hands out, doing rock-paper-scissors to see if they won or lost. And, if you lose, too bad. Get out, put on your winter coat, and go pump gas in Boulder.”

The three founding members of the band Guster stand on a porch

When Guster was in Somerville for Porchfest in May, band members visited their old apartment, where they worked on Lost and Gone Forever some 25 years ago. “Amazing how much they’ve jacked the rent while doing almost zero renovation,” they commented on Instagram. Photo: Bryan Lasky

To the Dreamers Go the Dreams

Guster’s climb was as slow and steady as their humble van. For years, the calendar was packed with a solid roster of college gigs and festivals. With the release of Lost and Gone Forever in 1999, recorded with U2 and The Rolling Stones producer Steve Lillywhite, the trio hit a new stride—moving from their signature acoustic sound to a deeper electric feel. The band kicked off the millennium under an official label and on an official tour with the Barenaked Ladies. 

By the early 2000s, Guster had cemented its status as a headliner, hit the Billboard Adult Top 40 with two tracks from Keep It Together (2003), and earned its first gold record for “Satellite” from Ganging Up on the Sun (2006). Multi-instrumental virtuoso Joe Pisapia had joined the troupe for three albums, and, after his departure, Luke Reynolds nimbly filled the gap. Percussionist Dave Butler became a touring member of the group in 2015.

When big moments came—like their first performance at Boston’s Symphony Hall—Gardner says their members were ready because the success wasn’t overnight. It was a marathon they’d been training for since the Battle of the Bands in Hotung Cafe. 

This spring’s sold-out We Also Have Eras tour was both a cheeky nod to Taylor Swift and a sentimental timeline of skits, songs, sets, and dozens of costume changes chronicling the group’s evolution. “What fit in a 2.5-hour show with music barely scratched the surface of all the stories that we have as a band and the history we've built together,” says Gardner.

Brian Rosenworcel is hoisted above the stage where the band Guster performs

Brian Rosenworcel is hoisted above the stage during a March performance at Fenway Park’s MGM Music Hall. Photo: Bryan Lasky

I’ve Got Blisters on My Fingers!

Miller freely admits he wasn’t a great guitarist or singer when Gus was formed. Gardner didn’t play his now-iconic trumpet as a student. And Rosenworcel—whose bongos are synonymous with the very name “Guster”—showed up to Tufts with the instruments having never played them, but hoping they’d attract some female attention.

Reading Rosenworcel’s accounts of the thrashings his poor mitts have taken over the years feels like a metaphor for Guster’s growth. “How can I be expected to rock while my finger is covered with Dr. Scholl’s Moleskin Padding, Kendall Alginate Hydrocolloidal Dressing (attached with Krazy Glue), and a chunk of a Bridgeport Sound Tigers minor league hockey #1 foam hand?” he reported 20 years ago in The Guster Road Journals blog, a living MAD Magazine of the band’s journey he continues to update to this day. Once swollen and bloody from nightly beatings, his hands have been freed up over the years by sticks and the progression of the band’s practice and sound.

Today, strings, winds, brass, piano, and even local choirs of retirees all play a special part in Guster’s music. Far from the acoustic drive of their early work, Easy Wonderful (2009) is just that—breezy alt-rock. By contrast, Miller calls Look Alive (2019) a purposefully icy work. “Every album is sort of a reaction to the album before it, and we're always trying to find a space that feels fertile creatively,” he explains.

For Ooh La La, Miller says Guster was searching for more heart. The band worked with Josh Kaufman, a collaborator with Swift on Folklore and Evermore and a member of the folk band Bonny Light Horseman, whom Miller calls “a very soulful person and player. He's a very emotionally available, middle-aged dude, you know, like we are.”

 

As each album has taken new leaps of faith, so has Guster. The three Tufts members had their first children (all girls) in 2007 and now have seven kids ranging from 10 to 17 years old between them. And they’ve given each other the space between albums to pursue other creative paths.

Gardner cofounded a group committed to reducing the environmental impact of touring bands (see sidebar). With nearly 20 film credits to his name, Miller’s become a seasoned movie composer since a fan and director tapped him to score 2012’s sci-fi comedy Safety Not Guaranteed, soon to be an off-Broadway show. Fans can also see him on screen later this year in the comedy/drama The Wake.

The band Guster plays on the front porch of a house while a crowd listens on the sidewalk and street.

Guster performed a free show for a large crowd at the Porchfest musical festival in Somerville on May 11. Photo: Bryan Lasky

We Are Never, Ever, Ever, Ever Ending This Era (Like Ever)

In honor of the release of Ooh La La, the band’s website offers Ooh La Lard, “the gourmet delight that effortlessly combines the musical charm of Guster with the richness of premium rendered animal fat.”

The humor is on brand for Guster—infamous for its antics. Giant inflatable versions of the members with heads and arms maniacally moving with the wind. T-shirts reading “Gutser” and featuring celebrity faces in lieu of their own. And the Thunder God, aka Rosenworcel, hoisted 20 feet above the stage to serenade the crowd.

Guster fans have responded in kind: chucking Ping-Pong balls onstage at the end of “Airport” to recreate the album’s sound effect, asking band members to officiate their weddings and host surprise proposals during live shows, and showing up to “dumpster sets” at, you guessed it, dumpsters with only 45 minutes and a tweet’s notice.

These days, fans continue their devotion by bringing their kids to the shows in vintage Guster shirts. This era and all that’s to come, Miller says, are his favorites.

“There’s something magical about starting in our dorm room a couple of miles from where we are and looking out and realizing there’s 30 years of an arc,” he said, speaking to the 5,000-strong crowd at Fenway Park’s MGM Music Hall in March, as the band wound down its last concert of the Eras tour. “Thank you for giving us this gift of this life and allowing us to be the weirdest version of ourselves.”

A classical singer and former brass player, Kristin Livingston, A05, has been a fan of Guster since receiving a copy of Lost and Gone Forever at her sweet 16. For those new to the group, she recommends tuning into this Spotify playlist while spreading Gustard—a Guster mustard—on your midnight snack.    

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